By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Guest Torah columnist
Torah Portion: Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20)
Two Destructions and Two Redemptions: “You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your G-d, your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even every person of Israel.” Deuteronomy 29:9
Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanĥuma, explaining the connection between the multitude of grim warnings (tokhaĥa) unloosed in the prior portion of Ki Tavo, and this week’s opening words: You are standing. Our sages teach: since the Israelites heard one hundred curses minus two, in addition to the forty-nine in the book of Leviticus (chapter 26), their faces turned green and they didn’t understand how they would be able to stand up to so many chastisements (curses). Moses thus began to comfort them: “You are standing here today. You have greatly angered the Almighty [after all, you constantly complained in the desert, you worshipped the Golden Calf, you refused to conquer Israel] but nevertheless you have not been destroyed and behold you are standing here today.” In effect, therefore, our opening has to be taken as a divine statement of consolation: You may well suffer, but you will never be destroyed!
Rabbi Yedidya Frankel, the late Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, asks three significant questions on this Midrash.
First of all, why did it take the second set of chastisements to cause the Israelites to “turn green,” when the first set of forty-nine could hardly be described as benign experiences? Here is an example from Leviticus: “I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish, and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it” (Lev. 26:16).
Secondly, the Jewish people seem to be recoiling at the massive number of curses – forty-nine from Leviticus plus another ninety-eight from Deuteronomy. But the fact is that last week’s portion goes out of its way to point out that the specific number of curses is hardly relevant because Israel will suffer every possible blow imaginable: “Also every sickness and every trauma, and every plague which is not written in this book of law, G-d will bring about against you until He destroys you” (Deut. 28:61).
And, in fact, the entire span of Jewish history bears out the horrible truth of this verse. For example, where in these warnings are the gas chambers of Auschwitz mentioned? And yet we were subjected to them! Hence why does the added number of curses cause them to turn green?
Finally, asks Rabbi Frankel, from a stylistic point of view, why does the Midrash not utilize parallel language? If, with reference to Deuteronomy, the sages speak of “one hundred minus two” curses, apparently being interested in a round number, why with reference to the curses in Leviticus do they not say “fifty minus one”? Why then do they speak of forty-nine?
Rabbi Frankel brilliantly answers all of his questions by suggesting another interpretation of “one hundred minus two.” It is not another way of representing the number ninety-eight. If we go back to the initial set of chastisements in Leviticus (Parashat Beĥukotai), we discover that, after the curses and the warnings are presented, the Torah then includes two comforting promises: “Then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the land” (Lev. 26:42). Two verses later we read, “And even this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, and I will not abhor them, to destroy them utterly in order to nullify My covenant with them” (26:44). They were to be punished, but they would remain alive as a people and would be restored to the Land of Israel.
What prompted the Israelites to turn green with fright was that when they heard one hundred additional curses in Deuteronomy, they were “minus two” – devoid of any comforting ending, without the two guarantees they had received with the prior set of curses. And if the chastisements of the book of Leviticus refer to the destruction of the First Temple and its subsequent exile, and the chastisements of the book of Deuteronomy refer to the destruction of the Second Temple and its subsequent exile (see Nahmanides, Lev. 26:16), the Israelites feared that there might not be a return and redemption after the second destruction. They feared that they would then be destroyed as a nation totally and irrevocably. To this end, Moses comforts them: “Atem Nitzavim – You are standing here,” aren’t you, despite the Egyptian exile and enslavement, despite your miserable backsliding in the desert! You are the people of an eternal covenant – and G-d’s guarantee as to your eternality as a nation holds true for as long as world and history remain.
The second Roman exile caused our nation to be scattered all over the world and endured for close to two thousand years. And although it is true that there is no immediate guarantee of restoration – indeed, the restoration was long in coming – the opening words in Nitzavim, barely one chapter later, promise our eternal survival, following our national repentance, and our ultimate Triumph:
“And you shall return to the lord your G-d and hearken to His voice according to everything I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul…”
Even if you will be scattered to the ends of the heaven, from there will the Lord your G-d gather you and from there will He take you up. And the Lord your G-d will bring you to the land which your fathers have inherited, and you shall inherit it, He will cause you to do well, and you shall be more numerous than were your ancestors. (Deut. 30:2–5) And this is what we are experiencing in our generation!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel (Orthodox).